Thursday, March 19, 2009

Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road

With public transit not an efficient option outside the major cities in Ireland, Laura and I were forced to do our countryside sightseeing by rental car. Unfortunately, the Irish - like most people previously subjugated by the British - drive on the wrong (by "wrong" I mean "left") side of the road. As the driver on this trip, piloting an automobile in Ireland was a part of our plans that had long worried me, and as if driving on the left were not nerve racking enough on its own, also consider:
  1. I hadn't driven a car in more than six months.
  2. I hadn't regularly driven a stick shift (the standard in Europe) since trading up from my first car, a 1982 Ford F-100 Pickup, more than a decade ago.
  3. As a right-handed person, my left hand is almost completely devoid of coordination, which is needed to operate a stick shift on the left-hand side.
  4. Our trip started at night, in the dark.
  5. It was also drizzling.
  6. According to Rick Steves, Ireland and Portugal have the most traffic accidents in Western Europe.
If the pedals had also not been in the usual configuration, I think I might have opted to walk.

Despite all these reservations, we set off from the Dublin airport to Athlone last Friday night in part one of a two installment drive across the island to Doolin. The trek required a monumental level of focus and teamwork between driver and navigator. We prepped ourselves before every turn ("Remember, right is the big turn!"), roundabout entry ("Clockwise 270 degrees!"), or exit ("That was our exit..."). I'm happy to report there were no accidents and only a few angry honks, the first of which was a reminder to us that 80 kph is a lot slower than 80 mph.

Here's a general look at our trek in Ireland; we took a more scenic route than this, but you get the general idea. (View Larger Map)

Our biggest difficulty that first night, though, was in the few instances when we needed to turn around. At one point, we found ourselves at a dead end in a neighborhood on an unfavorable slope with no idea how to get the car into reverse. I am familiar with subtle methods of reverse lockout, like pushing down while shifting, but nothing I tried worked. Instead, we opted for neutral and just pushed the car in reverse; this works well enough but isn't something you want to do in front of a crowd, especially a crowd of foreigners. We found out later that all these little manual cars in Europe have a ring on the shifter that has to be pulled up while shifting into reverse. It was so simple, and yet completely unobvious at the time...

In the end, braving the roads of Ireland, and more specifically the Irish countryside (at one point we actually encountered someone herding their livestock down the road using their car) was well worth it. More on what we saw to come...
This straggler couldn't keep up with the rest of the herd rumbling down the road.


Book Lust said...

This is why I refused to even use a bicycle the two times I lived in England. Good on you for braving a car!

Laura Kay said...

Good for Matt, because I was secretly happy that:

a) I never learned how to drive a stick shift

b) I lost my driver's license a while ago at some hostel or another

c) Matt already thinks I am a bad driver

Aunt Spicy said...

oh gosh...just reading that made me feel a bit anxious...I just spent a week driving on the left in Australia, luckily it was an automatic. Unfortunately it was a mini-van. And even though I had a Brit with me, he seemed to be enjoying the beer too much to drive ;)